Greenpeace questions the green in clouds

Credit: flickr/Public Domain Photos

A new report examines how green cloud providers’ data centers are.

Okay, so I mentioned yesterday, in this blog, about Greenpeace’s new report, “How Clean is Your Cloud?” It’s a comprehensive report on the energy consumption and energy sourcing in the data centers of some of the largest tech companies, and delves into data center deployments of 14 of the leading players in the market.

The international environmental organization has established what it calls the Clean Energy Index to evaluate and compare the energy related footprints of major cloud providers and their respective data centers. Greenpeace makes the case that there is little transparency regarding providers’ electricity consumption, despite the availability of a variety of industry metrics, including PUE. What’s missing, Greenpeace says, is data that illustrates how much dirty energy is being used, and which companies are choosing clean energy to power the cloud? Hence, the Clean Energy Index. This index focuses on recent investments and the current clean energy supply associated with each of those investments.

So, how did everyone fare? Here are Greenpeace’s key findings listed in the report:

  1. Amazon, Apple and Microsoft (three of the largest in the report) are rapidly expanding yet paying little attention to source of electricity and are relying heavily on dirty energy (dirty energy like coal and nuclear power) to power their clouds.
  2. Yahoo and Google lead in prioritizing access to renewable energy in their cloud expansion.
  3. Facebook has now committed to power its platform with renewable energy, a strategy that began in earnest with the construction of its latest data center in Sweden, which can be fully powered by renewable energy.
  4. A growing concentration of data center investments in key locations is having a significant impact on energy demand and how the electricity grid is managed; if such concentrated expansion is allowed to continue, this will make it increasingly difficult to shift these investments and the surrounding community away from dirty sources of electricity.
  5. Akamai is the first IT company to begin reporting its carbon intensity under the new Carbon Utilization Effectiveness (CUE) standard (Greenpreace reports that most others have been noticeably silent about CUE).
  6. There have been increasing attempts by some companies to portray the cloud as inherently “green,” despite a continued lack of transparency and very poor metrics for measuring performance or actual environmental impact.
  7. Collaboration and open source sharing of best practices in both hardware and software design among IT leaders is helping accelerate improvement and deployment of energy efficient IT design.
  8. Signs are increasing that more IT companies are beginning to take a proactive approach in ensuring their energy demand can be met with available renewable sources of electricity, and will increasingly play a role in shaping our energy future.

Apple got the most attention, and it wasn’t flattering. The company’s score on the Clean Energy Index was a paltry 15.3 percent (for the record, others had lower scores, including Amazon, IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, and Salesforce.com), but had the highest usage of coal at 55.1 percent. Apple got a D for energy transparency, an F for infrastructure siting, and Ds for energy efficiency & greenhouse gas (GHG) mitigation and renewables & advocacy. Greenpeace also picked apart Apple’s new data center in North Carolina. Apple is supposedly adding solar power to that data center, which I’ve written about here.

According to Greenpeace, this North Carolina data center in North Carolina will only get 20 megawatts of energy from solar and another 5 from a fuel cell operation – a fraction of the power consumption at the site.

According to this Forbes article, Apple disagrees. Apple says 60 percent of the power will be eventually delivered on-site from a solar farm and fuel-cell installation. Also, says Apple, Greenpeace made an error when estimating the facility’s power consumption. In the Forbes article, an Apple spokeswoman reports that at full capacity, the facility will draw about 20 megawatts of electricity, not the 100 megawatts that Greenpeace alleged.

The Greenpeace article does cite what it deems are positive examples, including the new carbon-neutral data center facility in Iceland built by Verne Global. You can read up on that here.

Take a look at the Greenpeace report. Let me know what you think. Is it spot on, too harsh, too inexact, or almost right?

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